With the pandemic restrictions ending, coupled with new legislative requirements, there is an increased awareness of the importance of good mental health and employer responsibilities to support their employees.
The transportation industry is rated as one of the highest-risk sectors for mental health. Issues such as increased congestion on aging roadways, shortages of qualified staff, provincial differences in regulatory requirements, and pressure to respond to the cargo backlog due to supply chain impacts all contribute to pressure on carriers and their staff.
For truck drivers, their mental health is further exacerbated by long periods of isolation on the road, the pressures of ‘just-in-time’ delivery, disrupted sleep patterns, lack of exercise, heavy traffic, and weather conditions. These factors often result in feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety – key contributors to mental health distress. Mental distress leads to chronic fatigue, anger, and difficulty focusing, which, in turn, increase at-risk safety behaviours and a higher probability and severity of preventable incidents.1
The prevalence of Canadians that experience mental health challenges is widespread. In 2020, the Canadian Association for Mental Health reported two statistics that can impact any organization:
• 1 in 5 Canadians, in any given year, will experience mental illness; and
• By the time Canadians reach age 40,1 in 2 will have or have had a mental illness.
In an article by John Smith in Trucking News (2020), it is estimated that the trucking industry employs more than 650,000 people. If we assume that 1 in 5 of these workers will have some form of mental distress in a year, then the industry could be potentially looking at 130,000 employees working on the job or on medical leave with some type of mental illness. In the 2012 Shattell study first referenced above, the rates of loneliness, depression, and anxiety for truck drivers were higher than the general public, suggesting that the number of workers struggling with mental health is higher than 130,000.
Research conducted in 2019 by the Infrastructure Health and Safety Association concluded that mental health disorders are still often viewed as a weakness in our society and workplaces. Of the respondents, 75% indicated they would be reluctant or refuse to discuss their mental illness with an employer or co-worker. The top three reasons were:
1. The belief that there is a stigma around mental illness;
2. Not wanting to be treated differently or judged; and
3. Afraid of negative consequences, such as losing their job.
Given the unique challenges that employers and employees face in this industry, it is promising that progress has been made in recognizing symptoms and supporting employees. More employees are reporting stress or stress-related problems, and these types of injuries are being accepted by WCB organizations. However, with the stigma that still exists around mental health, it is challenging for employers to establish and gain support for mental well-being programs beyond creating policies/procedures and providing a list of supports available.
In safety programs, we talk about identifying the hazard and then preventing or controlling the hazard. Prevention is always the optimal route, but with mental health issues, it is often difficult to recognize, understand, or support it in the trucking industry. The industry image is one of the bigger challenges that carriers face, and that is the image of the professional trucker being a lone road warrior that can get the job done no matter what, a person who does not complain and is not impacted by the unique job stressors.
Adding the non-reporting factor to the industry factors that can contribute to mental health issues, it is challenging for carriers to address the mental well-being of employees. There are some practical steps and resources available to get the ball rolling:
1. Create the right environment. Bell started its ‘Let’s Talk’ campaign as a way to remove the stigma and misbeliefs about mental illness. Organizations must build a culture that recognizes this is a workplace issue and is supported. The Infrastructure, Health and Safety Association organization has two useful resources on its website about starting the conversation through safety talks for drivers and dispatchers. You can find the resources at www.ihsa.ca. The Canadian Centre of Occupational Health and Safety has two free e-learning training programs that can be accessed and distributed to both employees and supervisors. The training programs can be found at www.ccohs.ca/products/courses. Engaging all staff in the conversation helps make mental well-being more visible to employees and starts to reduce the stigma in the workplace.
2. Develop human resource procedures. This will demonstrate to employees that it is okay to ask for help when they need it and that their privacy will be protected. Reinforce effective procedures with concrete supports – for example, staff should be given flexible shifts to accommodate therapy and treatment sessions.
3. Create safe spaces for employees to talk. Offer EPAS programs through health plans.
4. Train leaders. In order to change the culture of an organization, it is important that leaders demonstrate through their words and actions that they take the mental well-being of staff seriously. Leaders must be supported with the necessary training and resources to engage and support employees; provincial agencies such as WCB, Health, Labour, and OHS have numerous advisory resources and training aids to assist in this training. Provincial and federal trucking associations are another valuable resource to support carriers in the industry.
5. Make mental health resources easy to access. Access to telehealth, websites, mobile apps, and paper-based articles are critical to encouraging workers to seek and accept help. Supplying multiple means of engagement creates avenues for drivers on the road to easily access and for supervisors and dispatchers to stay current on their knowledge of mental distress signs.
By changing the culture of the trucking workplace to recognize the signs of mental health distress and remove the stigma perceptions, employers will be better equipped to attract and retain a healthier workforce. This, in turn, will improve productivity and reduce preventable incidents.It is time to start heading down this road!
1 Shattell M, Apostolopoulos Y, Collins C, Sönmez S, Fehrenbacher C. “Trucking organization and mental health disorders of truck drivers.” Issues in Mental Health Nursing. 2012 Jun 29; 33(7):436–44.